Industry voice: Process automation is gathering steam in the public sector, and cognitive technologies are creating the possibilities to do much more, writes Prajakt Deotale, industry sponsor for local and regional government at Microsoft
Advances in technology are opening up new possibilities for the automation of government services, looking beyond the management of simple administrative tasks to more complex processes in support of citizens.
Robotic process automation, chatbots and AI are creating an immense potential, especially when applied within the extensive, integrated technology stack that has been developed by Microsoft. Now the increasing sophistication of AI tools, with the application of cognitive technology principles, is promising to take this into new, more demanding processes.
It is imperative for public authorities to take advantage of this potential. They face demands in terms of citizen engagement, efficiency and the pressures on social care – the biggest drain on local authorities’ financial resources – that require radical new solutions in their use of technology.
For citizen engagement they need to be able to respond to rising demands while dealing with the squeeze on budgets. This comes with meeting customer expectations, which are being changed by the way people do business online with the commercial sector.
Part of this is to reduce the requirement for different account credentials for different online services. Local authorities have identified this as a significant issue and wish to make it easier for people to use one set of credentials for multiple services.
Process automation can make a big contribution to efficiency, but it has made relatively slow progress in local government. Too many processes still rely on manual intervention, especially when handing over from one system to the next, adding to the human effort in mundane tasks and the overall costs. They also add to the scope for errors and delays that undermines public satisfaction with services.
There is a further challenge for social care. The ageing population and social deprivation is increasing the demand for services, with estimates of more than 1.2 million people with an unmet need and a £3 billion funding gap. Efforts to deal with this are often undermined by a lack of coordination and a duplication of effort between agencies; but it is an area in which intelligent automation and cognitive technology can help professionals use their time more productively.
Need for more
These point to a need for more process automation in government, extending into areas that until now have required the human touch. Microsoft has laid the ground for this with the Dynamics 365 platform, which includes functions such as customer self-service, workflow and case management. But the automation can now go much further, with virtual assistants able take on back end processes to update information and manage transactions.
On a basic level they can take over from manual processing as information is transferred from front to back end systems. For example, when a citizen provides notice of a change of address for a service, the quasi logic within a virtual assistant can identify them, recognise the other services the person receives and automatically update the record in their systems – and if necessary create a new one.
This feeds into the single view of the citizen that is crucial to the provision of joined up services for individuals.
The virtual assistant can also authorise a service, and identify key points in a request to ensure it is allocated to the right team with relevant instructions and given an appropriate level of priority,
All this can reduce the amount of manual processing – identifying, validating and rekeying information – in moving service requests from front to back end, making the overall process much faster and eradicating human error. And an effective virtual assistant is process agnostic, so it can switch from managing one process to another, being deployed in a way that reflects changes in demand and organisational priorities.
But the big prizes are in applying robotics and AI to more complex processes in which they take on more detailed, nuanced interactions with citizens. Microsoft has contributed to the potential with the development of CitizenBot, a chatbot designed to manage the demands of local government in the UK, both in dealing with citizens and internally.
It can support interactions through a conversation over any device, responding to queries with questions to shape a more precise requirement and pull together information from a broad range of sources. It has been programmed to understand how requests from the public relate to the services provided by local authorities, and to hold conversations across a range of channels including text, Facebook and Skype.
It can also remember people through an authenticated log-in function, giving it the ability to refer back to earlier requests and records of services provided to the individual, and can work with a selection of languages. Overall it provides for an automated yet high quality level of support, with a positive service experience and significant reductions in operational costs.
The possibilities are expanding as other technologies – such as natural language programming, optical character recognition (OCR) and those for interacting with social media – become more mature. For example, OCR can recognise characters on a PDF document or image file, and natural language tech can make sense of a conversational or colloquial statement for a database. This is giving virtual assistants and bots the ability to take in more detail and handle the complexity in interactions.
Social care benefits
It could be used with social care, which accounts for a huge chunk of the budgets of many local authorities. Intelligent automation can be deployed in the more routine administrative elements of the service, while AI can help to create a more objective approach to compiling case notes and making recommendations.
Currently the process can be highly subjective and influenced by the distress that is often involved. With the use of predictive analytics and data insights the process can highlight crucial elements, relate them to other factors in a case history, and form predictions of what could follow from various choices.
It would not replace human judgement but, as is being seen increasingly in medical practice, it could weigh up options and make recommendations, supporting staff in making sensitive decisions. If it can raise the success rate of interventions it can ease some of the future burden on social care teams.
This can all work more effectively when it is integrated with the broad Microsoft stack, which can provide the data platform and productivity tools to support the intelligent automation and application of AI. The ability to tie together the case management function in Dynamics 365 with the CitizenBot, Citizen Identity, Office 365 and the emerging AI tools can sharply improve efficiency while social care teams – and others in local authorities – will gain a stronger understanding of individual cases and be better placed to make difficult decisions.
Public authorities are riding the first wave of intelligent automation in their services, but they should be looking beyond to this to the much wider range of possibilities from cognitive technology.
Microsoft is ready to support local authorities in their efforts and are running a roundtable/workshop, Improving Citizen Engagement - The opportunity of RPA, Bots and Identity, at its London HQ on Friday 18 January. Find out more details and register here, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
In addition, you can read about Wiltshire Council’s initiative to harness AI along with Dynamics 365 here. More details on this story can be found in the video below:
Image from iStock, Just Super